Digital Harrisburg Project: A Fall Update

The rapid pace of a new semester at Messiah College and the good things happening with the Digital Harrisburg Initiative have left not a single moment to write an update about our collective work in the Digital Harrisburg Initiative. At mid-semester, I’ve finally got a moment to give readers a sense of the growing energy of the new initiative.

1. Digital History Course

Student blog posts at this site over the last few weeks have showcased the work of another Digital History class currently underway. As I noted the last time I taught it, the Digital History class is designed to introduce students to “digital history”–the study and practice of history in the digital age–through discussions, labs, and projects. While our group of students is smaller this semester, the reader may expect a series of posts from students every other week for the next two months. Some will explore the concept, theory, and practice of digital history; others will focus on data analysis and the three main projects of the course. These include:

City Beautiful: The Campaign for Beauty. Students are now developing a section of the City Beautiful Omeka site originally created by students the last time I taught this class in Spring 2014. This semester we are focusing on the campaign for public improvements that occurred in the city between Mira Lloyd Dock’s speech to the Board of Trade in December 1900 and the vote for a new mayor and the bond issue in February 1902. We have collected stories, photographs, and news items from newspaper databases for The Patriot (Harrisburg) and The Harrisburg Telegraph to better understand the reformers involved in the movement (including their residences and networks), the venues and places used for promoting the bond issue, and the areas of the city where campaigning was most active. We are trying to understand how the reformers sought to convince the population to vote on a bond issue to take civic debt (and higher taxes) in order to implement reform. Students will soon be adding short overviews to the Omeka site explaining how campaign events related to the space of the city. This map below, for example, shows the the residences (red) of some of the principal reformers who drove the campaign for improvement in 1901-1902 against the background of how the different city precincts voted for the bond issue to support improvements. The darker the background, the greater the support for improvement. (The first number in the map below indicates the ward of the city, the second number the precinct, e.g., 7.6 = Ward 7, Precinct 6).

This map shows the residences (red) of some of the principal reformers in the improvement campaign of 1901-1902 against the background of how the city voted in February 1902 for the bond issue to support improvements.


City Social: The Vote for Beauty. The second project will introduce students to the creation, use, and analysis of spreadsheets and databases. The last time I taught the class, students digitized half of the federal census records for Harrisburg in 1900. That project is now completed (see below), and our students this semester will develop two new data sets: property values for 1900 and the city’s immigrant populations in 1900 and 1910. Property values will show in fine detail how wealth was distributed across the city at the turn of the twentieth century and influenced the vote on the bond issue in February 1902. As the map below illustrates, the city was split evenly between northern precincts, which were marginally in favor or even outright against the bond issue, and southern and eastern precincts that voted largely, if not overwhelmingly, in its favor. Inputting and visualizing property values across the city will allow us to determine whether that variable contributed to how precincts voted.

Vote for Bond Issue, Harrisburg 1902

Immigrant data will highlight the global connections of the city and highlight the networks and processes by which the small group of immigrants (5% of the population) settled across Harrisburg.

City Mobile and the VIP Wall. The idea of a “Harrisburg VIP Wall” originated in conversations with history students Rachel Carey  and James Mueller over the summer. What if we put Harrisburg’s “important” and “significant” citizens on a digitized and publically accessible map of the city? The third project in the digital history class will make use of geospatial approaches (Esri’s Story Maps) to tell stories of Harrisburg’s citizens and their place/mobility between 1900 and 1920. Students will focus on groups important in civic reform such as the Board of Trade, the Civic Club and prominent women of the early twentieth century, the Municipal League, and African American activists, teachers, and reformers. They will conduct original research the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Historical Society of Dauphin County, find photographs of individuals and buildings, and tell their stories with maps, texts, and photographs, especially as their stories relate to questions of place, space, and local, regional, and global mobility.

Look for regular updates about these projects and Harrisburg history through the semester.

2. Federal Census Data, Harrisburg: 1900-1930. In other news, the Digital Harrisburg Working Group continues to plow through demographic data. Our data manager, history senior Rachel Carey, has finished inputting the federal census records for Harrisburg in 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930. This was a monumental accomplishment which will effectively allow us to visualize changing populations over time as well as the effect of large-scale city development–including, for example, the capitol extension project, new transportation investments, and large-scale building projects–on the city’s population.

Refining our demographic data sets for 1900-1930 will take a significant amount of time as the data is messy and will need to be cleaned. Only yesterday, for example, I discovered quite by accident that some people were counted twice in the federal census. The prominent Neal family seems to have lived in two houses in the city and were recorded living at each of them. How frequently this double counting occurred is unclear but it should reduce our population count slightly.  More to the point, though, this is just one example of many data problems that we’ll need to work out at the next stage of our project. NealDuplicate


3. GIS. While our group at Messiah College moves forward on demographic data, Professor Albert Sarvis at Harrisburg University is working with lab supervisor Alexander Moats and geospatial technology student Charles Shearrow to digitize, georeference, and create building footprints for the 1929 Sanborn Maps. Since we have already created traces for the 1901 atlas–the beginning point for the City Beautiful movement– completing the 1929 maps will give us the latest end point. This is an enormous project in its own right since the city grew rapidly over that three decade period and because the 1901 Atlas and 1929 Sanborn maps do not align perfectly.

4. Analysis and Presentations. Other major recent developments include analysis and presentation of data. Since the theme of this year’s meeting of the Pennsylvania Historical Assocation was “Rethinking History in the Digital Age,” we couldn’t resist putting something together. Our panel last weekend was titled “Revisiting Harrisburg’s City Beautiful Movement amid the Digital Turn.” Chaired by Professor Jim LaGrand, it included presentations by me, student Rachel Carey, and Professor Albert Sarvis on (respectively) the social diversity of the city at the turn of the twentieth century, the campaign for and vote on improvements in 1900-1902, and population mobility between 1900 and 1920. Michael Barton, professor emeritus of Penn State Harrisburg and well known Harrisburg historian, offered an engaging, thoughtful, and frequently witty response. The presentation was our first step in making use of spatial analysis tools to understand Harrisburg’s City Beautiful program. Our presentations discussed Harrisburg’s ethnic communities in the early twentieth century, African American neighborhoods, demographic change over time, and correlations between voter outcome on the bond issue in 1902 and demographic variables. The maps below, for example, could suggest some interesting relationship between precincts’ support (or lack of support) for improvement and the diversity of the precinct (measured by the percentage of the population born outside the state of Pennsylvania (“outsiders”). We may post selections from our presentations over the next few weeks.Vote-Outsiders


5. Expansion and Other News. Finally, our team has been thinking over the last few months about how we might expand the project over the next year or two. Here are some developments:

  • Professors Jim LaGrand and Jean Corey at Messiah College are working with their students this year through a course in Public History (Spring 2016) and the Public Humanties Student Fellows program to tell the story of particular neighborhoods and churches in Harrisburg. This will certainly involve more oral history and documentary work than we’ve done in the past, which will comprise a whole new layer for understanding the history of the city.
  • Too early to say much about this, but I’ve been corresponding with individuals in other communities of the region (Mechanicsburg and Lancaster) about developing similar demographic and GIS-based projects for those communities.
  • We’ve applied for external grants to fund the development and refinement of our data sets.
  • Professor Erikson will be teaching his intro to GIS class again in the spring and will add more geospatial layers for other communities of the region.
  • Diane McCormick recently wrote an excellent article about the project for The Burg.
  • The public student humanities fellows are working with an interdisciplinary group of volunteers to discover the rich cultural/ historical landscape of the city through a project called Poetry in Place project, which invites regional public poets and Harrisburg City School students to write about significant sites. Eventually this project will be linked to a digital map of the city.

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